Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Gay Angeleno's decades-long odyssey for green card depicted in new film

Anthony Sullivan and attorney Lavi Soloway leaving the USCIS building in downtown Los Angeles.
Anthony Sullivan and attorney Lavi Soloway leaving the USCIS building in downtown Los Angeles.
Lavi Soloway

Anthony Sullivan’s quest for a green card is now coming up on 40 years.

An Australian national who lives in Los Angeles, Sullivan has been seeking permanent residency in the U.S. by way of marriage since 1975. That’s the year he wed American Richard Adams in Colorado, one of the first same-sex couples to ever legally marry in the U.S.

Like other binational couples, the two sought a green card for Sullivan to stay in the country. But immigration officials at the time would not allow it for two men. One letter from the government read: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”

The response stunned Sullivan, who had decided to make a life in L.A. after meeting Adams at a gay bar during a 1971 visit.

“I was only here for one reason alone, and that one reason to be here was for Richard,” Sullivan told KPCC.

The couple’s story is now the subject of a documentary film premiering next month at the Los Angeles Film Festival, called “Limited Partnership.”

The battle for same-sex marriage has picked up momentum over the last decade, and it's now legal in 18 states. But Sullivan and Adams are recognized as the first gay couple to push the federal government to acknowledge their marriage in court fights that spanned the 70s and 80s.

“People think that marriage equality happened so quickly but it's been hard work and many years in the making,” said the documentary's director Tom Miller.

Limited Partnership trailer

In April 1975, the two had flown to Colorado to get married after hearing that a county clerk named Clela Rorex was giving marriage licenses to gay couples.

“The first marriage was reported in the press," Sullivan recalled. "And then Johnny Carson started to talk about it on the Tonight Show. We realized the significance of it immediately.”

They were one of six same-sex couples who secured marriage licenses that spring.

The same day of the wedding, Adams filled out a permanent residency petition for his new husband and mailed it in. 

After the petition was denied, the couple sued the federal government, twice.

But their lawsuits were rejected, and in 1985, the two felt they had little choice but to leave the U.S. During a stay in Ireland, though, after a nearly year-long exile, the two were homesick for L.A.

"We acknowledged this is where our home is," Sullivan said. "And we came home.”

The couple settled into a quiet life in L.A. — Sullivan painted and managed the Hollywood apartment building where they lived; Adams was an office worker at a law firm. And they watched as more states adopted civil unions, and later, same-sex marriage.

Then in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That meant estimated tens of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans could seek green cards for their foreign spouses.

Couples whose earlier applications had been denied because of DOMA were also being granted visas by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

But this came as bittersweet news for Sullivan. Adams had died of lung cancer just months before the Supreme Court ruling.

For Sullivan to seek a green card at this juncture would cast him into uncharted territory, said his lawyer, Lavi Soloway who advocates for gay and lesbian binational couples as part of The DOMA Project.

"In this case, the petitioner is not with us anymore and we’re talking about reopening a case so his surviving spouse can have status of widower," Soloway said.

But last month, on the 39th anniversary of their marriage, Sullivan asked immigration services to reconsider Adams' green card petition for him.

Sullivan, who is 72, is hoping he can receive Social Security spousal benefits. He also wants to visit Australia without fear of being refused re-entry to the U.S. He's already missed his mother's funeral and family weddings.

"Not being able to go back — that's an area of pain for me," Sullivan said.

Claire Nicholson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, declined to comment on the case Monday, citing privacy law.

As the case pends, the documentary-makers behind "Limited Partnership" are moving ahead with their film. After a world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival on June 14, the film will be broadcast sometime during the 2014-2015 season for PBS's Independent Lens, Miller said.

Miller said he's keeping an eye on Sullivan's case and — unlike most directors with a finished film — hoping to update the ending.